The Blog

UK Education's Double Act - But They're Just Not Funny!

Of late I have become fascinated with two of the main players in UK education. The Secretary of State for Education, the Right Honourable Michael Gove and the Chief Inspector of Schools, and Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw - from what I can tell he is the only person in the UK to have been knighted without winning a major sporting trophy.

Living in Sydney, some 15000km away from the UK, the current state of the UK education system is not always at the forefront of my thinking.

But as a teacher who was born, raised and trained in the UK and who spent a few years working in the inner city schools of Manchester, I do - from time to time - check in on proceedings.

And it's prudent for me to do so, as more often than not, Australia adopts education strategies and policies borne out of the UK - albeit with a significant time lag.

In 2008 Australia introduced its first nationwide standardized testing regime, nearly 20 years after the UK introduced the SATs. And hard as it is for UK teachers to believe, Australia is still wrangling with the implementation of a National Curriculum some twenty-odd years after the UK introduced its version.

But of late I have become fascinated with two of the main players in UK education. The Secretary of State for Education, the Right Honourable Michael Gove and the Chief Inspector of Schools, and Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw - from what I can tell he is the only person in the UK to have been knighted without winning a major sporting trophy.

I'm fascinated by the pair, because it appears - at least to me - that never have two people been less suited to their field of employment.

It appears that Michael Gove - at a fundamental level - does not get kids.

Just weeks before hundreds of thousands of students sit for the exams they have spent their entire education preparing for, Gove announces he doesn't think they're much chop, and he plans to axe them after 2015.

Teachers all around the UK, who had worked tirelessly to engage kids in their learning could be heard muttering, "Nice one Mike!"

It appears Gove is keen to return to an O Level style of assessment, which if history is any indicator, also means a return to a perceived lesser CSE style qualification for those students who aren't as academically minded. What better way to engage the so-called lost generation.

Of course, it is easy to be critical of Mr Gove in this instance, after all these comments were "leaked." He wasn't able to control the way his message was conveyed to students.

If he had been able to address students directly he would have captivated their imaginations, had them in the palm of his hand as he did during this wonderful address to students at Haberdashers' Aske's Foundation in Lewisham - or then again perhaps he wouldn't.

I've often wondered how politicians are chosen for their respective portfolios, or how one politician can shift from say, the Health Portfolio to Law & Order and be expected to excel in both.

In Gove's case, other than attend school for 13 years, his experience in schools appears to be limited. As a trained journalist he may have covered stories about school or education - I'm really not sure.

At a time when all indications point to an increasingly "have/have not" class system, why would the person in charge of education be apparently intent on sticking a crowbar in to further widen the gap?

Why is he being allowed to disadvantage the kids who need him most?

Why does the UK tolerate having someone who is so out of touch with children and youth, as the person in Government who should be their number one ally and supporter?

If Gove doesn't get kids, then Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Head of Ofsted certainly doesn't get teachers.

In a statement in which he was seemingly channelling Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch, Wilshaw said that teachers who claim their job is stressful haven't got a clue, "Stress is what I was under when I started as a head in 1985, in the context of widespread industrial action," he says, "Teachers walking out of class at a moment's notice; doing lunch duty on my own every day for three years because of colleagues who worked to rule; covering five classes in the sports hall when there was no-one to teach them."

However,the difference between Sir Wilshaw and Palin et al. is that when Wilshaw delivered his lines - no-one laughed.

Wilshaw is certainly a man of extremes. There is little room for compromise, negotiation or shades of grey. He is the kind of guy who given the chance, would ban students from hugging in order to ensure there were no reports of inappropriate touching - Oh wait - he did do that.

On his appointment as Chief Inspector of Schools he dispensed advice to UK headmasters that again sounded like it should have been in a comedy sketch," A good head would never be loved by his or her staff," he says, "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right."

But again - no-one laughed.

He seems oblivious to the challenges teaching in inner city school present despite the fact he hangs his hat on the fact(and was knighted because) he has taught in inner city schools all his professional life.

He refuses to award a school whose teachers are doing an outstanding job, unless the schools results are also outstanding when compared to the rest of the country and draws on his record as an outstanding headmaster of Mossbourne Academy in order to affirm his position.

Admittedly he looks to have done a great job. In the shadow of Hackney Downs School - dubbed the UK's worst school in the 90s - Wilshaw oversaw the rise of Mossbourne Academy, whose biggest triumph was to have seven of its 2011 cohort gain entry to Cambridge University. All in an area that took centre stage in last year's UK riots.

Having said that, the school only has 180 students or approximately 26 students per year group.

In comparison, when I was Head of Year 10 in an inner city school in Manchester, we had over 1800 students.

Hardly a fair comparison Sir.

He has made one salient point around the subject of stress, "Stress is, I'm sure, what many of the million-and-a-half unemployed young people today feel," he says, "Unable to get a job because they've had a poor experience of school and lack the necessary skills and qualifications to find employment."

Perhaps Mr Gove can explain to him how bringing back O Levels (which were originally disbanded because of falling educational standards) will address this.

For what it's worth, Australia's Minister for Schools is a rockstar! Really he is. You may remember Midnight Oil of "How do we sleep when our beds are burning" fame?

Well that's our guy! And yes while his appointment also forces me to once again ask upon what criteria such appointments are made - Peter Garrett does come across as a decent bloke full of good intentions.

I can't say that I think the same of the Right Honourable Michael Gove or Sir Michael Wilshaw - perhaps it's the tyranny of distance.